After months of requests from North Country advocacy groups, local governments and state representatives, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Randy Preston Road Salt Reduction Act last week.
It’s intended to reduce road salt pollution in the Adirondacks, and it becomes law just as concerns about snow, salt and safety on the roads are making their annual appearance.
But any reduction in salt use is still at least a year away, and will only be a trial run. Relief from salt runoff corrupting wells, rivers and lakes — and rusting vehicles — is a long way off.
“We’ve been using salt on our roads for about 50 years, and in that time ... by my math, about 7 million tons of salt have been put on our roads, and a lot of it has accumulated in our soils and groundwater,” said Dan Kelting, executive director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College. “No matter what we do, it’s going to take a considerable amount of time to reverse the contamination of folks’ drinking water.”
The legislation will create the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force, which will research alternatives to salt spreading on winter roads and submit its recommendations by Sept. 1, 2021.
Then, these recommendations will be carried out in a three-year road salt application reduction pilot program, while keeping highway safety as a top priority.
Legacy and legislation
The bill is named after Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston, who died after a battle with cancer in July 2019. Preston was known for years as a strong advocate for limiting excess road salt use. He was the co-chair of the Adirondack Road Salt Working Group.
The two houses of state Legislature almost unanimously passed the bill in July, but it has sat on Cuomo’s desk since then, awaiting his signature. All the while, government leaders and green groups have persistently asked him to sign it, kicking off research and trial runs of salt alternatives.
Adirondack Council Director of Communications John Sheehan said the state Department of Transportation had concerns about expenses when this bill was proposed.
“But given the limited scope of the initial pilot project, I think that it’s something they can pretty well absorb into their budget.”
“DOT looks forward to working with the task force to explore new ways to balance public safety, the environment and public health in the Adirondack Park,” DOT spokesperson Joe Morrissey said Thursday.
Now that Cuomo has signed the bill, conservation and other advocacy groups are praising Cuomo for putting the plan into action.
The Adirondack Council gathered a press release with quotes from leaders of AdkAction, the Ausable River Association, the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter, the New York League of Conservation Voters, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Council’s own executive director, William Janeway.
“We thank Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders for addressing road salt pollution now, before it becomes as widespread and damaging to the environment and economy as acid rain,” Janeway wrote in a press release. “We should have safe roads and clean water. Corrosive, salty water is bad for everything it touches: lakes, rivers, fish, roads, cars, bridges, driveways, pumps, plumbing and people.”
The bill was sponsored by North Country state legislators including retiring state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, and Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, who was elected last month to take Little’s place in the Senate.
The bill was also sponsored by Sen. Tim Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee who represents the Buffalo area.
Salt is used to melt ice on slippery roads in the winter, but when it runs off into waterways and wells, its sodium content can have corrupting effects, altering aquatic life, making well water undrinkable and rusting out houses’ plumbing and appliances.
“Salt-contaminated drinking water is a serious public health hazard for people with high blood pressure and other health conditions,” Brittany Christenson of AdkAction wrote in a press release. “When it strikes a private well, it can become a costly crisis for local families as they need to buy bottled water and replace appliances, pipes, and even drill a new well.”
A 2019 study by the Adirondack Watershed Institute found that of 500 Adirondacks wells tested, 64% of these downhill from state roads were found to have sodium levels exceeding the federally recommended health limit. Wells near town and county roads were shown to be much less affected; town and county highway departments rely more on sand for winter road treatment, whereas the state DOT uses straight salt.
Kelting said AWI testing shows a “strong correlation” between salty water and state-maintained highways.
“This convenience that we have is coming at a cost to people’s drinking water and our surface water,” Kelting said. “If people care about that, then we need to have different ways to manage our roads.”
He said if areas are going to have less or no salt put down, there will need to be engagement with the driving public, informing them that these areas will be more slippery for drivers but safer for water.
Kelting said the DOT has become more open to working on salt reduction over the years. He said it now partners on pilot programs on state Route 86 in Lake Placid and state Route 9 in Lake George.
According to Sheehan, preliminary results from pilot salt reduction efforts in Lake George have demonstrated a approximate 30% drop in salt expenses. He said roughly $16 million is spent on road salt in the Adirondacks each year.
Kelley Tucker of the Ausable River Association wrote that the pilot programs in the Lake George region and on Mirror Lake in Lake Placid show reductions in salt use are possible while maintaining public safety.
Tucker noted that Mirror Lake’s natural turnover process was interrupted by an accumulation of salt at the bottom of the lake, leading to low oxygen at the lake bottom which threatens its fish population and makes it vulnerable to algal blooms, like the one detected in November.
Sheehan said by the end of the three-year pilot program the state should better understand how to make the best practices of the program permanent, expand the program to the rest of the state and make it work universally.
Sheehan said the Adirondack Park’s hard bedrock, thin soil and steep slopes make it the place where road salt damage — like acid rain damage — is likely to appear first.
Robert Hayes of Clean Water Associate at Environmental Advocates NY called the Adirondacks a “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of the state.
Less sand and salt?
Dave Werner of Malone is executive secretary of the Franklin County Traffic Safety Board and writes a weekly traffic safety column for newspapers throughout the region. He recently wrote two columns defending the use of salt over sand for winter road treatment, but he said he’s not opposed to the new law because he favors reducing the amount of both sand and salt used on North Country roads.
“I think every municipality overuses ice and snow control on all the roads,” he said Thursday.
“Before COVID I used to go to Canada all the time ... and they just put it (salt) down in the center of the road, and the crown of the road plus traffic, they take care of it ... and that’s what we should be doing, things like that, instead of dropping from the center of the truck in the back.
“When I talk about salt being better than sand,” he added, “I’m really applying the amount of sand they lay down, being 750 to 1,000, sometimes up to 1,200 pounds per lane mile.”
He thinks drivers can adjust to less-than-bare roads in the thick of an Adirondack winter.
“Why do we have to drive 65 miles an hour on 55-mile-per-hour roads two hours after it stops snowing?” he said.